There is a line that epitomizes the moment that Mary Ingalls lost her sight in 1879, at the age of 14. It comes from the novel ‘By the Shores ofSilver Lake’. Laura writes:
Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma all had scarlet fever. Far worst of all,
the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes and Mary was blind.
fever was a serious disease back in the 1800s and as many as 30 percent of children suffering from it
died. It was used as a literary device in many novels of the era, with readers
able to relate to the fever and how fatal it could be. In Little Women, Beth
succumbs to scarlet fever and dies tragically, and the child in the Velveteen Rabbit also
contracts it. Mary Ingalls' blindness being caused by the fever seems highly
however, newevidence has come to light that scarlet fever may not have been the cause of
Mary’s blindness at all. In all likelihood it was viral meningoencephalitis, or ‘brain
disease’ as it was known then.
Memoir helped Researchers
popularity of the Little House books remains strong today, with 3 being cited
in the School Library Journal’s 2012 list of favorite children’s books, and
this is the reason so much interest has been sparked about the revelation
behind Mary’s illness.
fever, even today, is received with dread, as parents overreact to news that
their child has the infection, reports NBCNews. Many parents connect scarlet fever to literary classics such as Little Women or Little House on the Prairie,
when in fact today it is likened to strep throat with a rash. In the 1800s,
however it was a different matter. Scarlet fever ravaged towns, preying on young children' with a particularly bad
epidemic hitting Fredericksburg in 1861, claiming at least a hundred lives,
according to a resident. The disease hit a poignant chord with the nation and
this is why it has been used as a popular literary device ever since.
writing in the journal Pediatrics,
has been studying newspapers of the era as well as epidemiological data about
blindness to come to her findings with her co-authors. They also found Laura
Ingalls’ memoir Pioneer
Girl to be incredibly useful when collating their research. Laura wrote a letter to her daughter in 1937 about Mary’s
illness, and how a doctor had called it ‘spinal meningitis (sic) some sort of
spinal sickness’. In all likelihood, Tarini reflects, the disease was changed
before the novel went to print to make it easier for children to understand, as
scarlet fever was already known to so many. Tarini
believes that the meningoencephalitis
affected the optic nerves in Mary’s eyes, causing her vision loss.
Reality of Pioneer Life
House books have a wholesome appeal for so many and are a beloved part of our
culture and history, but pioneer life was far from easy, and this is reflected
in Laura Ingalls’ memoir. Themes of alcoholism and violence pervade the Little
House books, bringing a real sense of dark
reality to the stories.
Gazarek writes about Laura in Bloom magazine. As a young adult, Laura carried a revolver around with her when
she spent time in Florida because of the tension there, and she worked in a
hotel in Iowa where she witnessed alcoholism and occasional violence. These
events had an impact on her writing. Along with scenes of Indians visiting Walnut Grove, crop failures and
plagues of grasshoppers, there are tensions between characters, with occasional
alcohol abuse being prevalent in certain chapters that is also portrayed in the
Chronic consumption of alcohol was common in the 1800s, with many believing that it was
good for the health. Americans would consume alcohol at different points of the
day (called ‘eleveners’) instead
of coffee or tea, and laborers would stop in the fields for a jug. Whiskey was
considered ‘absolutely indispensable to man and boy’ in the 1800s and was seen
as being as important as bread. In the 21st Century,
addiction is seen as a very serious and destructive illness and sufferers
receive the best help available, from withdrawal centers such as those in Idaho, with full support from
their families. This is a far cry from the pioneer attitudes of the 1800s, when
whiskey was truly believed to be vital to
a man’s constitution.
Ingalls’ account of pioneer life is a fascinating reminder of the past, and we
can see how the serious themes of a harsh frontier experience seeped into the
memorable Little House books.